YARMOUTH – When predicting intellectual success for students, academics generally fall into two camps of thinking:

Those who believe that IQ and aptitude levels are set and can be optimized but not significantly altered.

Those who believe that these gauges of intelligence are just a starting point that may be enhanced through strong teaching and character development.

Most teachers, by nature optimistic, want to believe this second scenario.

It’s confirming, then, that the latter perspective has been bolstered in recent years by studies on the important role perseverance plays in determining achievement not only in school, but in the larger arena of adult life.

Psychologist Carol Dweck’s research at Stanford has shed further light on this debate. Her studies have shown that students’ mindsets play a critical role in predicting their ability to make academic strides.

In essence, Dweck argues that students who believe they can improve how they can learn, actually do.

“Hard working is what gets the job done,” she says. “The students who thrive are not necessarily the ones who come in with the perfect scores. It’s the ones who love what they’re doing and go at it vigorously.”

If her findings are accurate, then educators ought to be asking not how they might wedge more knowledge into students, but instead, how they can help students believe they are able to learn more and do better. The subsequent question is: How can educators then set the bar high while offering the right level of support to inculcate the confidence children need to keep thriving?

In my experience, this opportunity presents itself at the very start of the school year, when teachers have the opportunity to establish the tone and the expectations for what can happen in the classroom.

The faith that teachers place in students and the support they offer in the opening days of the year often carries through the semester, the year or even over multiple years of a student’s academic career. It happens during teaching time; in advising and extra-help sessions; in small but significant interactions in the hallway or on the playing field.

This kind of student support goes beyond learning the traditional academic subjects to fostering a belief that intelligence is, in fact, malleable. The emphasis on boosting confidence and providing more opportunities for character development is the cornerstone of the work of David Levin, founder of New York City’s KIPP Academy.

Over much of the last decade, Levin has placed an emphasis on life lessons and character development for his students, many of whom are coming from low-income families.

The results? Though there is still much research to be done, students at KIPP schools are more likely to outperform their peers, attend college and graduate with a degree.

In environments like KIPP Academy, where students are supported to achieve high goals as students and as people — in fact, success in one area means little without success in the other — we find that if expectations can change, academic achievement follows suit. And if kids can keep making strides, they can keep changing their prospects for the future.

How do we do integrate such an approach in our schools?

One powerful way is to provide successful students with regular opportunities to challenge themselves to set the bar higher as students and as people and less successful students with the opportunity to hit the “reset button” on what they believe they can learn.

This may be achieved through special projects or expanding the notion of a traditional classroom to offer different kinds of instruction: minicourses, experiential classes and community and service projects are certainly possibilities.

Another way involves students teaching each other through peer-to-peer learning, thus further empowering them to be self-motivated, self-sufficient learners. In learning pods, students can solve problems together, think abstractly and learn from mistakes and common experiences.

Classroom environments that emphasize an ability to reason and work in groups over narrow academic skills or book learning are more likely to encourage students to cultivate a broader notion of learning that evolves over time.

The malleable notion of intelligence stressed in character education provides the foundation for students to hone their ability to redefine the parameters by which they learn.

And throughout, teachers have to continually believe in their students and hold a course so that their students can do better, improve their academic achievement and become more successful as learners and as people.

As students hear this consistent message, their character — and, to a certain extent, aptitude and intelligence — will change and new opportunities for growth open up for all.

Brad Choyt is head of school at North Yarmouth Academy.


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